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August 20, 2009

In theory, archaeologists set out on their digs with specific goals in mind. They want to find out when a site was occupied and what people were doing at that time. They also want to know the bigger picture: how did people at the site they are digging interact with those living elsewhere?
In practice this does not always mean that they know what they will unearth.  In that regard, I have often compared archaeology to fishing; people tend to go where they think they will catch (or, in the case of archaeologists, find) something.  The discovery described below is a good example of this.

Creative Commons License photo credit: procsilas

Cambridge University  professor John MacGinnis recently commented on one of his finds, a small clay tablet with cuneiform writing on it. The tablet, which dates back to the final years of the Assyrian Empire, was found at the site of Tushan in Southeast Turkey. This site is known today as Ziyaret Tepe; several archaeological teams have undertaken excavations there.

 The tablet contains a message written by an Assyrian army commander facing imminent danger from invading Babylonian forces.  His message is a raw plea for help. “Death will come out of it! No one will escape! I am done!” 
What is this all about?
The year is 630 BC and Tushan, considered to have been the administrative capital of the northern province of the Assyrian Empire, is threatened by the Babylonians. From the brief cuneiform text, it appears that the citizens knew all too well this was happening. Many fled, among those specialists in weapons manufacturing. This is what caused the commander to lament: “Nobody mentioned in this letter, not one of them is here! How can I command?”  His premonitions proved to be correct: the city fell.

Assyrian door gaurd
Creative Commons License photo credit: glyn_nelson

Yet the Assyrians had had a great run for a long time. Centered on the capital city of Ashur (Assur), located on the west bank of the river Tigris in northern Mesopotamia, the Empire’s roots date back to 1800 BC. Its zenith occurred during the 13th century BC, during the reign of king Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244–1208 B.C.). As with all empires, decline eventually set in and by the time we reach 630 BC, the Assyrian Empire was but a shadow of its former self.  The Babylonians were systematically conquering them.

Through this tablet, we get a glimpse of what people experienced at that time. Archaeologists  value this highly: when we read history, we often forget that real people were part of these events and that to them these developments were more than just of academic interest. To me, this cry for help still packs a punch, even after more than two and a half millennia have gone by.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

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